An international team of volunteers ranging from high school students to retirees, representing the United States, Germany, Israel, Korea and Great Britain, fondly looks back on seven extraordinary days of learning, serving and exploring Phnom Penh, Kompong Speu, Preah Vihear and Siem Reap.
Together with local Cambodian friends and supporters, the team immersed into the family and community development program of Tabitha Cambodia. The program is extraordinary because families move from desperate poverty and living on the streets to owning their own home and small business, producing crops and raising livestock as well as providing their children secondary education—all within a five to seven year time period. At that point, the families “graduate,” thereby making room for new families to enter the program.Tabitha begins the process again. Tabitha has grown holistically from serving a handful of destitute street women to providing, during the current fiscal year of September 2014 through August 2015, its life changing program to 55,960 families who have a combined 447,680 dependents. The overall impact of applying the Tabitha principles of permanent poverty elimination for twenty years in Cambodia has resulted in 529,886 families with 4,207,088 dependents to move into a stable, sustainable rural middle class life with multiple sources of steady income. These statistics are eyebrow raising giving reason to consider and study the principles whereupon they are based.
forPEACE annual service learning expeditions provide opportunity to get involved and observe Tabitha in action. The experience includes an overnight stay in the countryside. This year the team worked in the village of Putrea, located in a remote area of Preah Vihear, close to the Thai border. There, the volunteers helped build simple houses side-by-side with families enrolled in the Tabitha program. It was a glimpse into authentic, rural Cambodia. Tabitha Director, Janne Ritskes, recently summarized the spirit of housebuilding in the following letter:
House building involves young people, middle aged people and the older, young at heart folks coming from all parts of the world to help build houses for families who may not get a house without their help. The impact of the houses on our families is immense. In Cambodia people believe that to die in their home will ensure a safe passage to the next life.
A few years ago, a team came and built for some of our families. At the end of house building we have a simple ceremony handing the houses over to the families move in. It is a time when we are reminded what a gift these families have given to us - the volunteers. It is the gift of a privilege – the privilege of sharing but a small part of our lives with our families here. We need to be reminded of this, as often we come with the belief that we somehow have a right to do this – that we are entitled to not only build but to be treated as special people simply because we came. It is our time in this small ceremony to thank the families for allowing us to come and to help finish a small home.
It is also the time for the families to thank us – to try and express in some small way, the gift they have received from our volunteers. These expressions are all very similar in content but expressed in various ways. At this particular handing over ceremony – one of the women spoke. She was in her mid-forties, raising her own 6 children as well as helping to raise 6 orphans from the village. She had developed cataracts and it was difficult to see the world clearly. She said to the team: “you will forget us in 6 months or a year and that is right – you have busy and full lives. But -on the day that I die – it is your face that I will see. Thank you for that gift”. For her and all our families, the gift of a permanent home – a house that will allow them to be safe – to live with dignity - to die in peace, is truly a gift beyond measure.
For us at Tabitha Cambodia – house building is about friendships between very different peoples and backgrounds – it is an opportunity to learn about dignity and about respect for each other – it is about change – a change of attitude from those who have so little - to realize that those of us who have so much are capable of doing hard physical labor – of us, who have so much, beginning to understand the strength and skills of those who have so little. It is a time of realizing our own inner strength as volunteers work in a hot climate doing unfamiliar and physical labor – realizing at the end of the build that we can do so much more than we thought we were capable of. It is a time of realization for our families -how different life is when the entire family can sleep under one roof - what it’s like to sleep through rain - what’s it’s like to not have to worry about flooding and losing life – a new sense of freedom and dignity.
I thank my God for my own home and safety, I thank my God for all you volunteers who come and share your life with so many here. I want to thank all of you who are unable to build but support financially the teams that come. It is all so very good.